Nov 05

Top Ten Reasons People Tell Me D&D 4e Cramps Their Role-Playing

Top 10 arguments I’ve heard about how 4e “destroys role-playing” (emphasis mine):

1) X (Gnomes, Bards, Drow, Half-Carrots, etc.) is missing. I can’t
play what I always play, therefore, it cramps my “role-playing”.

2) There are no “fluff” skills. I can’t take 5 ranks in Craft
(Basketweaving), thus the system doesn’t let me express my character.

3) My character must now be useful in a combat. I can no longer make
a character who is useless in combat, so it cramps my role-playing of
the sickly half-demon with the penchant for crayon-chewing.

4) The book gives a whole lot of options for what to do round by
round in a combat situation, but very few options (2-3 skills) for what
to do when I’m talking in character. Essentially, it continues the
proud tradition of the dicelessness of D&D for non-combat

5) Because the combat system offers more options, it slows combat down for new players, thus leaving less time for role-playing.

6) The combat system rewards PCs for cooperative action, thus
punishing me from running off and stabbing the bad guy on my own. I now
must discuss my “tactics” with the rest of the party, which cramps the
chaotic nature of how I like to “role-play” my character.

7) I can no longer have my spellcaster take a bunch of extra spells
that help define the deep inner angst of his upbringing as a blind
bookbinder’s illegitimate son. I now am limited to Spells which are
actually useful in combat, and Rituals that are actually useful at all.

8) It’s hard for me to make my Fighter have different abilities in
combat that are still cool. That guy across the table has the same
powers as me. If everyone is special, no one is.

9) The items and monsters are heavy on stats and combat abilities,
and short on descriptive fluff. I must now invent my own idea of how
they look.

10) The guy sitting across from me is a half-demon and/or a humanoid dragon. How can I take this seriously?

Oct 30

Speeding Up D&D 4e Combat

I’ve been running 4e for a while now, and here’s what I’ve learned about speeding up combat:

1) Each player has more options in each round.  If each player looks over each and every option as it comes to their turn, and not before, slowness ensues.

2) Having cards for each power (there are many nice ones available to print out) saves a lot of time, because you can turn over your daily and encounter powers as they get used, thus reducing the number of options you have to choose from.

3) Monsters have more hit points – the idea is that each PC will get a chance to do something to them before they go down.  So if you plan to have more than 2-3 enemies for the PCs to fight, consider using minions to pad out the rest, since they go down much quicker, but allow you to retain the tactical interest of a mob.

4) Dice matter a lot more, so if someone is having an off night, things will go longer.  One way to help with this is to make sure your enemies have a reasonable AC.  Even though the XP totals might work out, monsters that are 2-3 levels higher than the PCs are often quite hard to hit, which can slow things down.  Save those for special occasions.

5) Keeping track of conditions is better in 4e in that they typically only last one round, rather than dX.  That said, there are often more conditions to keep track of.  I’ve been using the little Alea Tools magnets to keep track of conditions, but condition cards that can be flipped over once someone saves might work even better.

6) I agree with Jonathon’s comment in that if your group isn’t used to working as a team, and considering how their actions affect everyone else, it can slow things down.  After 3-4 sessions, my group really got into the groove, and started really laying the hammer down.  So, one suggestion might be to run the encounters toward the bottom of the
XP range until your group gets in sync with their character set.

7) In general, they removed a lot of the aspects of combat that were slow and didn’t add tactical/RP interest.  However, they added a lot of tactical options, and powers that convey more of the spirit of each class.  But it’s still your job as DM to keep an eye on your group, and to present them a mix of encounters that they enjoy.  If they aren’t as interested in the complex tactical aspects, then send them simpler monsters, and/or ignore what’s not working for them.  I’ve often found that you can use say, a poison attack once or twice to get people the flavor, and then let it go for the rest of the battle to speed things up.

8) For newer players, I often will only give them one power card per level to worry about.  Some players will be happy with that forever. Others might want to branch out into more options as time goes on.

9) Mixing in the RP with the combat is another way to make things more interesting.  You might have three groups of enemies, and they are chasing the PCs around, rather than just having a slugfest in a room.

10) If you are running a published scenario, don’t be afraid to scale back the encounters in terms of numbers of enemies to speed things up…

Oct 04

Return to Northmoor

Kim and I have been working a lot lately on our new podcast, Return to Northmoor, which is a new idea for podcasting.  Much like audiobooks let you read while you commute, Return to Northmoor presents a D&D module for you to learn while you commute.

In addition to being able to reclaim time from your commute to prepare to run your D&D game, Return to Northmoor also gives you very specific gaming advice on the material being presented.  So in addition to presenting the adventure material in audio format, it’s enhanced with helpful ideas on how to run it, as well as lessons learned from when we ran it ourselves.

To add an entertainment factor to the instruction, we intersperse the “here’s this session’s adventure” episodes with episodes that go over actual play of a session that has already been presented.

In this way, by the time you sit down to run Return to Northmoor for your own group, you’ve had a chance to not only hear the material as it is intended to be run, but also how it actually ran for our group.  So hopefully, it will help someone who wants to run the adventure feel more confident than simply reading a standalone presentation.

Check us out!


Jul 20

D&D Podcast with Bob Salvatore

I don’t know how many of you listen to the
official D&D podcast with Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls, but the
episode that was an interview with Bob Salvatore was pretty
interesting, especially if you are a writer.

The hosting is, um, “rough”, but Bob’s comments are insightful as
to how writing and novels have changed over the last 50 years and why.

Even if you aren’t particularly a fan of Bob’s work, it’s really interesting to hear his thoughts.

Here’s a link to the podcast:

Particularly, I thought that his comments that people like Tolkien
and Eco and Melville (who’s writing styles drive me crazy) had to be
very explicit in their descriptions, because they were writing for
readers who had no shared context – no one had see TV shows on dragons
and monks and whales, so they had to describe them in great detail.

Today, detailed description falls away and pacing and characters
become king. Which I think is an interesting reflection of the FtB
host’s frustration with the “Tour de Realms” type game.

We can see a tour of Ireland or Scotland on TV now, whereas in Tolkien’s day, his words were that tour.

Anyway, just thought people might be interested…

Jul 20

On Role-Playing in D&D

in D&D will be there just like it always has been, but the rules
have ALWAYS been about the dungeon crawling, monster killing fiesta,
with story as an after thought IN THE BOOKS. At your table, you play
the game however the heck you want.

D&D 3.x didn’t remove any
rules for role-playing from 2.x. But it DID make the combat section of
rules more rigid and interesting, so people spent more time with that
part of the game.

Bottom line, as many people have said, is that you don’t NEED rules
for role-playing. That said, I believe that certain games, such as
these story games, FOCUS THEIR RULES ON FACILITATING role-playing. This
is good for some people, bad for others.

So bottom line is that the game is still what you make of it, get a grip.

Jul 20

“Best of” D&D Tropes?

So, if you were going to write a 1st-3rd level
adventure for D&D, and you could pack it full of all your favorite
tropes from games past, what would you be sure to include?

Here are some thoughts:

1) A home base to call your group’s own, with people that know them and pester them for stories upon their return. (a la the Village of Hommlet)

2) A syndicate of villains – where you work up defeating the lower
level thugs until you eventually take on the head of the syndicate. (a
la the Slavers series)

3) An ancient temple to a forgotten god, with evidence of prior attempts at raiding it (a la the intro to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Temple of Elemental Evil)

4) Off the charts crazy traps (a la White Plume Mountain)

What tropes or moments in your favorite low-level D&D games do you
wish that people starting out with the game could get to experience?

Jul 20

Railroad GMing?

I think that Game Master railroading is a lot like sexual harassment: It’s not what you do, it’s how the people you are doing it to feel about it.

Let’s take the example of a D&D game, where the people start in a small town – let’s say Hommlet.

If you have the mayor come up to the players and tell them “There is a
big scary temple out in the woods – you all look competent…help us
out!” That’s not railroading.

If you have the PCs come into town, immediately have them arrested,
have a local cleric geas them, and send them off to the temple under
penalty of death, that’s railroading.

Back to the “help us out” option – if they decide ignore the mayor
for the moment, have a few drinks in the tavern, browse the wares,
check out the local working folks – and you have monsters from the
temple swoop in on them for wasting time – we’re back to railroading.

On the flip side, if you say “here’s a town, have fun”, and then
after 3 hours of drinking they are asking “so…what was our point in
being here again? The old guy said there were mysteries around here –
but where?” That’s what I call over-obfuscation.

You are trying so hard to be sandboxy and open at that point that
the players get frustrated trying to figure out what to do next.

So in that case, they might actually prefer the monsters coming to them.

In summary – players should always have a clear idea in which
direction adventure lies, but retain a choice on which direction they
want to go…

Jul 20

A Gaming with Kids Con Story

Here’s a quick story from the convention scene.

Running a characters-provided con D&D game for a mom, her 11-year-old, and 4 adult friends of the mom.

Point comes in the story where 11-year-old is about to realize his PC
is the child of one of the other PCs, and that neither knows it.

I ask to take a break, and pull the kid aside – I take him out in
the hall, just him and me. I explain the situation that he’s about to
encounter, and we talk about how his character would react to the news.
A little pre-RP if you will. It’s an important moment in the story, and
I want to make sure he’s prepared.

He’s pretty excited by it – “Wow – my character never knew who his dad was? And it turns out to be someone he just met by accident! Coooool.” But he decides his PC would not take the news well. “Why did you abandon me!” and all that.

So we go back into the room after 10 minutes of discussion (rest of
the players were on health break), and the mom has this very uneasy
look on her face. She looks me in the eye and says “What have you been doing out there with my son?” And the way she says it, I feel like a child molester or something.

But the kid responds to his mom “Oh, you’ll see“, with this devilish grin, and she seems placated.

So the scene plays out, and the guy who is playing the ‘dad’ to the
kid’s PC totally drops the RP ball – just lets the revelation slide by
in order to get to more of the ‘adventure’.

But the kid saves the day – stopping the game to go stand by the
other player and confront his PC – big scene, the rest of the players
jump in, and it turns in to a spectacular RP moment for all.

At the end the mom thanked me profusely for spending so much time helping her son with the rules, RP, etc. I had to tell her “No offense…but by the end, he was the best player at the table“. And in typical mom fashion, she ignored the sideways insult and walked away very proud of her son…

Jul 20

Gaming With Kids

I love gaming with my kid, but that gaming with my 9-year-old and my adult friends at the same time is uncomfortable.

Bottom line is that unless you are a Pixar-level master of multiple
levels of humor and plot on the fly, then someone at the table won’t be
getting the game they want.

I’ve been running Mrs. White and the 9-year-old through Keep on the Shadowfell, and we’ve had some great moments that would’ve been quite unpleasant with a larger group.

He plays a Wizard, and she a Paladin. Nasty battle in a waterfall cave, she goes down. He panics “My god, I’m all alone with these MONSTERS
now!” He looks at me “Can I run away?” Insert life-lesson discussion
about not leaving your best-buddy fallen comrades behind for the
kobolds to eat. He grabs her unconscious form and jumps over the
waterfall to escape, in true cinematic fashion. Believe me, for most
younger kids, the idea of ‘rescuing’ your mom is a powerful one.

A short rest later (thanks, 4e!) they return to the cave. They go
in, and he spots the leader sleeping on a cot in the back room. Before
the Paladin can stop him, he grins, “We’ve got him!”, and runs in. Of
course, the body on the cot was a dummy. He runs in and stabs the
dummy, and gets sneak attacked by the leader hiding in the shadows.

The whole time of course, Mrs. White has a big grin on her face –
she suspects a trap, but she knows he won’t listen – he has to learn
for himself. If we’d had a whole party affected by his actions, it
could’ve pissed a lot of people off. As it was, it was a big exciting
dramatic moment. “He tricked us!”

The two lessons I walked away with were:

1) Wow, it’s fun when everything old is new again through the eyes of
your child. Helps crack through some of the old jaded gamer exterior.

2) Wow, I love how in a tabletop game I can adapt the whole game to
what the players are doing. I kept thinking how hard it would’ve been
to do all that in a video game without it all being figured out in

Jul 20

Scorching Burst Everything!

So the 9-year old has decided that his Wizard’s
hammer is the “Scorching Burst” spell (the 1st-level mini-fireball),
and the world all looks like nails to him.

He created this song:

“I gotta sandwich that’s cold”

“Scorching Burst!”

“I gotta friend who’s asleep!”

“Scorching Burst!”

“I gotta guy tied up with ropes!”

“Scorching Burst!”

“It’s a little chilly in here”

“Scorching Burst!”

“I need to light the campfire!”

“Scorching Burst!”

“I need to make some coffee!”

“Scorching Burst!”

Yeah. Kids.